A Teen Reporter in Iowa

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Photo-Illustration: Hulu, DNC

When I arrived in Iowa for the caucuses a week ago, I was filled with anticipation. As a sophomore in high school, I was pretty sure I would be one of the youngest people wherever I ended up going throughout the following days, but I was excited to learn and observe. I was convinced that I’d come away from the experience invigorated, having seen such a strange, significant part of the electoral process firsthand.

But things turned out differently: A few days later, back in the airport, I felt exhausted and confused, surrounded by reporters who had their eyes glued to their phones, or were engaged in tense, muffled conversations. The results still hadn’t come in — and wouldn’t for several days. Nothing was clear, except the fact that the process had imploded disastrously. At one point, my friend laughed and turned her phone towards me, showing off a tweet that read, “This is the Fyre Festival of caucuses.”

Before they collapsed into Fyre Fest levels of disarray, the caucuses had felt exhilarating. I lost my breath a little as I walked into the Drake University gym for the first time ahead of the event. It was a sensory overload: The space was huge, much larger than I anticipated, and ringing with the roars of supporters shouting out their candidates’ names. I observed for hours as 849 caucus-goers rushed around, attempting to cajole one another into changing sides. Everything appeared to be operating smoothly, by its own odd logic, and it was all out in the open — everyone in the room knew exactly who was voting for which candidate, something I had never experienced before. By 9 p.m., we had an answer: Elizabeth Warren had won our precinct, with Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders trailing behind.

Shortly after, I found myself at a victory party for Buttigieg in a nearby mini-gym. It was premature, of course, but everyone was still carrying on as if they had something to celebrate. A growing sense of unease was spreading, though. I watched the woman next to me, who had travelled from South Carolina to hear Buttigieg speak, shift back in forth to get a better view of the television screen that should have been projecting the final results by this point in the night. Some people began to tap their feet anxiously. It didn’t help that the cell service wasn’t good at all, so every once in a while, when someone’s connection got through, the people standing around them would crane their necks in order to get a look at the polling updates on their phone.

Rumors began to spread that there was a problem on the app that was used to tabulate the results. At first I thought it was a joke or a misunderstanding, since there was no way that a tiny, broken app could derail something as consequential as the Iowa caucuses. The celebration went on. Buttigieg eventually came out to speak, announcing he would be moving on in the race victorious, and the crowd erupted into thunderous applause and cheers. It wasn’t until after the event — when I got outside into the cold air and warm embrace of cell reception, and refreshed the Times poll — that I realized he hadn’t officially won.

The following morning, things remained just as muddled. Joe Biden had already left the state after a crushingly poor performance, and his campaign released a letter criticizing the Iowa Democratic Party for “acute failures … statewide.” Buttigieg and Sanders were neck and neck, and Buttigieg kept declaring himself the victor, while Sanders’s team touted his 6,000-person lead in the popular vote. The IDC, meanwhile, put out a statement about “inconsistencies” and reporting issues, sparking livid speculation that information was being withheld.

It was a widespread feeling of frustration and unease I’ve grown accustomed to — many of my peers are disillusioned with the political process. And though the turmoil from the aftermath of the Iowa Caucus was felt across generations, mine is one that’s come of age amid a pattern of untrustworthiness in how elections are organized, starting back in 2016 with Trump, when Russian involvement in the race was actually a legitimate suspicion. My faith in the institution has been shaken not once, but twice, in the past four years.

But we can’t afford to overindulge in pessimism. Rather than passively inheriting a system we distrust, it’s up to us to question everything, to forge our own paths, and work towards a political future that inspires us. Fortunately, every young person I met in Iowa — other teen journalists, protesters, and the volunteers from all over the country — seemed to feel the same way, too.

 


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